Food on my mind… (Or, how to make yogurt)

My last post made me realize that I haven’t done a recipe post in ages and ages. So I’m sneaking one in here. I actually meant to share this recipe while I was still at home in the States, since that’s when I was trying it out, but better late than never I guess. 😉

While we were staying with my dear friend Ritu and her family in Delhi, we got treated each and every day to hands down the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten.

Paneer, Dal, Spinach, Beans, Okra, Chapati and Yogurt - all home make and all seriously yum!

Bengali sweets - dangerously delicious!

Every meal was a total smorgasbord, with exciting new dishes involving different vegetables or combinations of spices or interesting sauces to try – not to mention all the different, amazing items picked up from Bengali Sweets for dessert.

Anyhow, while the spectrum of curries and legumes and veggies varied from day to day, there were a few staples that were always on the table. In addition to fragrant rice and piping hot, freshly made chapatis, there was homemade yogurt.

Reeshma, one of the maids, made a fresh batch of this yogurt every single day. I watched her and learned the steps and not only was it dead easy to make, it was totally delicious – light yet creamy, with just the right amount of tangy-ness. Roman and I tried yogurt all over India after that but we never found anything that could match Reeshma’s. I didn’t think to ask how long she’d been using the same culture to make yogurt for the house but I bet it’s been around for ages!

Having been dreaming of Reeshma’s yogurt ever since leaving India, I was excited to have access to a kitchen while we were at my parents’ place, and to try making yogurt myself. It IS incredibly easy. Although I don’t have the instinct for it like Reeshma did, who knew when the milk was ready to take of the heat just by looking at it. I tried doing that, attempting to remember how hot the milk in India felt all those months ago when I was shadowing Reeshma in the kitchen and all I ended up with was a pot full of room-temperature milk the next day.

But with the help of a cooking thermometer, I was able to brew up a perfectly firm batch of yogurt every time. Mine was never quite as good as Reeshma’s, but it got better as my culture matured and as I experimented with different types of milk and fermentation time, and in my opinion, it was definitely better than the store-bought stuff. So, without further ado, here’s how easy it is to make your own yogurt:

Ingredients/equipment:
 – 1 quart (about 1 liter) milk – skim, whole, whatever, it doesn’t matter
– 2 – 4 tablespoons starter – any plain, unsweetened yogurt that has live cultures. I used Stoneyfield Farm the first time and my own yogurt subsequently and both worked fine
– A pot to heat the milk in
– A bowl that is big enough to fit the pot so you can cool down the milk
– A clean, oven-safe bowl with lid for the yogurt to ferment in
– A cooking thermometer
– Tap water and ice
– An oven you can use for at least 7 hours.

Instructions: 

  1. Preheat your oven to between 100 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit. (38 – 48 degrees Celsius). Once it’s reached the desired temperature, turn the oven off.
  2. Set out your starter to let it warm up while you’re preparing your milk.
  3. Prepare a bowl with a small amount of water (not too much or it will spill over the sides later when you put the pot in it; I know this from experience 😉 and a generous bunch of ice cubes; set to the side.
  4. Pour 1 quart of milk into your pot. Place the thermometer into the milk and heat over high heat.
  5. Watch the temperature; once it reaches 185 degrees Fahrenheit (85 Celsius), at which point the milk will start to froth, remove it from the heat and place it into the ice bath.
  6. Keep it in the ice bath until it cools to around 110 degrees Fahrenheit (45 degrees Celsius)
  7. Pour the milk into your bowl, cover and place in the warmed oven.
  8. Leave the yogurt in for as many hours as you can – I usually had it in for at least 7 hours. I’ve read that if you let it ferment longer that you’ll get thicker yogurt so you can play around and see what works for you.
  9. After enough time has passed, check in the oven and discover that magically, yogurt has appeared! 😀 I usually prepared the milk before I went to bed and let it sit in the oven overnight, so it was ready in time to go with Roman’s granola at breakfast. 🙂

I’ve been doing some more research online and looking at different recipes; I read one that said it’s also possible to get a thicker yogurt by keeping the milk at 185 degrees for longer (up to a half hour, one particular recipe suggested) – something for me to try when I have access to a proper kitchen again. 🙂

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Happy birthday to… this blog!

I’ve now been on the road for one whole year! Unbelievable but true! I’ve put together some videos to celebrate and to help me get my head around just how much we’ve seen and done these past 365 days. 🙂 Enjoy!

Intro

India

Myanmar (Burma)

Thailand

Laos

Cambodia

Vietnam

Rajasthani music plug

Way back when we were in Delhi, my friend Piya invited us to join her for a concert. The music was The Manganiyar Seduction – devotional artists from the Rajasthan desert singing and playing some of the most bewitching music I’ve ever heard. The performance was just magic. The clip below (from YouTube, not my own video) shows snippets from the show but doesn’t do justice to the power and passion of the full-length live performance (a word that also fails to convey – these guys weren’t “performing”, they were channeling something sublime).

If you want to hear more, the album is available on iTunes.

The reason I’m writing this post, though is because the record label, Amarrass, is now undertaking a project to “do field recordings of master folk musicians” directly in the desert villages of Rajasthan itself. Find out more about the project here, and feel free to donate if you’re interested. 🙂 I did, and I can’t wait to hear this new collection of music.

Unfinished thoughts on India

While we were in Phnom Penh, we ate a meal that brought tears to my eyes.

I admit I am a bit of a foodie and really good eats can honestly make my day, but this was something different. This was the taste of a whole country – and my myriad of experiences there – in my mouth: India.

We’d eaten “Indian” food other places since we left India at the beginning of the year, but the meals we’d had were sad shadows of the glorious food we enjoyed so much as we traveled through that country. The flavors we experienced there were a significant and visceral part of our travel experience in the country that began this whole big adventure we are on.

So suddenly tasting the “real thing” again brought me right back. It was a reaction that I was not expecting and I was frankly shocked at its strength. The meal was a delight but I mostly ate in a stunned silence, flashing back to many scenes and vivid emotions with each bite of tikka or spoonful of raita.

The first destination of our world trip and the place we’ve stayed the longest and seen the most (so far), India is a bit like an impressionable teenager’s first love. For better or worse, the next few locations inevitably get held up against India for comparison. Is it as intense as India? As dynamic/ demanding/ dramatic/ dirty?

While it’s natural that our first stop in Asia was bound to make a deep impression, and our tendency to hold everything the standard of India is lessening as we take in more and more sights, sounds, tastes and experiences in other countries, the fact remains that the country has got a special place in my heart (and my stomach apparently feels the same way!), and I suspect that on our travels we will encounter no place quite like India.

The why and how of these strong feelings are hard for me to articulate. I know that as much as I tried not to, I had huge expectations at the outset of our big trip – for the trip in general and specifically for India. My assumptions and expectations have given way to actual experiences and the (ongoing) process of letting go of what is in my head to simply being more present where I am has often been uncomfortable. A lot of my lessons on this topic were in India, where I thought I would be floating through the country like a perfect, serene yogini, filled up with the beauty of the place but in reality was often bogged down by self-criticism and doubt, frustrated by emotions I didn’t want to look at and challenged by things like societal restrictions on women and how to feel about the massive class divides that dictate so much of people’s lives there.

The amazing opportunity we had to spend so much time in my friend Ritu’s home in New Delhi was a big part of this. I am incredibly grateful to her and to the women in her household who welcomed me and Roman like family. Our time with them still gives me a lot to think about.

On women in India

We were with Ritu and her family while they were going through some significant difficulties. That whole situation is not my story to tell – suffice to say there were legal issues and family dynamics particular to the Indian culture and judicial system at play.

My friend Ritu is smart, independent, and extremely well-educated. She is better off than most Indian women. Seeing what she and the women in her family had to go through in their situation – all the dead ends they ran into and the near-brushes with violence they thankfully managed to avoid as they had to play within a system of appearance versus reality (the external ‘noble’ tradition supporting behind-closed-doors abuse of power, the spheres of women’s movement and influence being limited to the men they can trust to act for them) sometimes made me despair for the state of the majority of Indians who are poor, unconnected, uneducated.

At the same time, I was in constant awe of the strength, grace and burning nobility of women we saw in India – from Ritu’s infinitely elegant mother to the gorgeous spunky, outspoken girls I danced with at the Pakistani border to the rural women doing backbreaking farm work in gorgeous, bright saris.

I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I am struck by the instinct towards fierce but graceful survival in some of the women I have witnessed here.

Circumstances that would have left me defeated ten times over are approached with an attitude that combines strength, patience, faith, integrity and above all, dignity. No matter what the burden, their backs remain straight, their shoulders poised, heads held high. Seriously, I believe the women in India, with time, could achieve anything. 🙂

On service in India

One thing that was really tough for me upon arriving at Ritu’s was the fact that her household had servants. This is totally normal in India; cheap household help is the norm in all of Asia in fact. But this was my first time encountering it in my life and I had no idea how to act or how to feel about it.

The fact is that in the beginning it made me incredibly uncomfortable and it felt wrong to have a young woman who was probably 30 pounds lighter than me lugging my massive pack about or waiting for me and Roman to go to bed so she could go to sleep on the floor of the living room where we were hanging out.

Because of this I am even more grateful for all the time we had at Ritu’s. The relationship between employer and employee in India is far more complex than I could imagine, and I’m glad I had the chance to see some of the nuances for myself.

Ritu’s mom employed three women. Two live-in and one part-time. As I got over my discomfort and got to know them better, I was able to see the shades of grey in the situation and understand the deep interdependency. For me the initial instinct was that “rich” people with servants = bad bourgeois (it took me a year to get over my internal angst and finally hire a cleaner back in Switzerland which made my life SO much better (even now though I feel the need to explain that I was working crazy hours which is why I couldn’t keep up with the cleaning myself!) 🙂 ) and I should feel bad for the women she hired.

But I was able to discover the deep love the women had for each other. When Ritu’s mom got into a dispute with a neighbor, all three girls were at her side in an instant, shouting insults and defending their mistress with all the fire in their big hearts. When the family situation got really tough, the girls were in the kitchen, crying in sympathy, or rubbing Ritu’s mom’s shoulders in support.

On the flip side, Ritu’s mother was more than just an employer. She taught the women to manage and save their money. If they were ill, she managed and paid for their medical care. Most of all though, her employment helped to get them out of desperate situations. Sheela left her abusive husband and was raising her children as a single mother. Pushpa escaped an arranged marriage to a man with psychological problems who had tried to kill her. Reeshma came from an impoverished rural family; with no education her job allowed her to send necessary money back home. How could I still pity these amazing women for working as servants in a household knowing what the job meant for them?

It makes me rethink the confusing feelings I had about other Indians working in service as we traveled. The countless hotel employees we saw sleeping at night in the lobbies or restaurants we sat in during the day. The rickshaw drivers’ whose homes were their vehicles. It seems like such a tough existence to me, but what was their alternative, what were they coming from?

We met one tuk tuk driver who said something that stuck with me. “The customer is God.” This is in contrast to what you hear a lot in the west where “The customer is king.” In India, it’s the customer who determine’s the fate of the guide, the driver, the porter. Our decision to employ them determines if they will earn any money that day, if they will have enough to eat that day or can care for their family. The employer is God.

But the employee can choose how they feel about and treat their “God”. I loved how many of the transactions in India were on the terms of the people in “service” – the number of tuk tuk drivers who refused to take us or the waiters whose attention we failed to get. That tuk tuk driver might have viewed customers as gods, but gods can be ignored, railed against, called on only when needed… It’s certainly not a simple, one-way relationship.

Unfinished thoughts

So, it’s a bit late now, but I don’t really know what the point of this somewhat rambling post is, other than to make it clear that India is still on my mind. I am loving our experiences in Southeast Asia, and there is lots that we have seen here that has made an equally deep impression in my heart, but I also love that India lingers and keeps me company as we move forward in our travels. I love the thrill my heart feels when I hear the pulse of the tabla or the breathy strum of a sitar. I love the jumble of emotions that well up if I look back at my photos from our time there. I love the associations that dance through my head when I’m some really good palak paneer or parantha. And I love the hope that I can go back to that country again some day.

PS – The restaurant in PhnomPenh that started all this was Mount Everest. I’m happy to report that we’ve found another Indian place that’s nearly as good in Siem Reap called Curry Walla. Also, I’ll post some photos of the lovely women working at Ritu’s home in my next entry.

Other bits and pieces from Chiang Mai

Roman’s last couple of weeks in India had him covering a lot of ground, so we weren’t too ambitious with our activities in Chiang Mai. A leisurely morning at the apartment followed by exploring the town on foot (with the occasional pit stop for coffee) was a pretty typical day for us. Chiang Mai has a laid back vibe and was a good match for our ambitions.

It reminds me a bit of a college town in the States. Somewhere between a town and a city, it seems like a place that has everything you could want without feeling too big. It certainly caters to tourists, but not so much that it feels overwhelmed by Westerners. The multitude of coffee shops, massage and yoga studios and colorful open-air markets give it a bit of an alternative feel. All that while still being distinctly Thai.

Here’s some more impressions and a few other things we experienced while we were there.

Thai fashion

I can probably count the number of native women I saw wearing jeans in India on my hands; mostly women were dressed in Salwar Kameez or Saris wherever we went. And no matter what exactly they were wearing or how rich or poor they were, they carried themselves with an innate grace. Women in India work hard – they till fields, wash children, sweep gutters, cook food, scrub floors, carry fire wood, do road and construction work – in these bright, traditional clothes, and manage to look more elegant than I would if I were covered in silk and diamonds. There is a poetic poise and beauty at the core of Indian femininity and women that I’m still trying to get my head around (especially because of the contrast of the anything but elegant way women are often treated there…).

I mentioned that Chiang Mai felt like a college town with a bit of an alternative vibe. Certainly after India, the fashion in Chiang Mai felt really youthful, playful and fun. It was actually almost a bit of a shock in the beginning to see that much skin again after getting used to covering up in India. Seems like a lot of women in Thailand have great legs and they know it! Short shorts and the shirt-as-a-dress are everywhere, and people seemed to have a really playful approach to fashion, mixing patterns and styles at will with some really fun results.

So I’ve been loving the people and fashion watching, and I have to keep reminding myself that I am travelling on a budget and with very limited space in my baggage. 🙂

Observation has shown me one must-have Chiang Mai accessory that I can do without though, which is the pocket dog. Tons of shops and street stands had resident puff balls like this one – often in doggie jackets and sometimes even in little doggie shoes. Cute but not my style….

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Night markets and street food

Chiang Mai is great for open-air shopping. The Sunday market is especially fun – not in the least because of the smorgasbord of exciting street food. Some more appetizing than others…

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Dried squid

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Spicy potato spiral on a stick – kind of like a cross between french fries and potato chips

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More squid and other things on sticks (like eggs – impressive!)

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Cute cartoon pancakes

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Fried bugs (no, I didn’t… yes, I’m a wuss, and I’m ok with that)

Not pictured but two of my favorite Thai desserts are now 1) fresh mango with sticky rice: total comfort food and 2) the banana roll – think spring roll pastry filled with sweet banana, fried and served piping hot with a topping of sweet condensed milk. Num num.

The flight of the gibbon – zip lining

One of the few tourist things we did do was go on a day trip zip-lining through a rain forest outside of Chiang Mai. There were posters for “Flight of the gibbon” all over town, and I’d read about it in Lonely Planet.

I’d wanted to try zip-lining for a while and “FotG”’s website talked about some of the proceeds going to preserve the ecosystem, so it seemed like a good opportunity. The zip-lining was fun enough but Roman and I were slightly underwhelmed by the program. Moving through the course with 10 other tourists made the experience feel a bit clunky and while the guides were nice, the joviality felt at times a bit forced. We’re just not ones for those sort of group activities I think. 🙂

That being said, I think it’s probably a great thing to do if you have kids, and the location was jaw-dropping beautiful. The trees were massive, ancient and just gorgeous, the real highlight of the day for me. 🙂

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Incredible tree!

Fish spa

Another thing we saw where ever we went was fish spas: small shops with big tanks full of little fish in the window. Apparently the fish have a natural habit of feasting on dead skin cells and a therapy was developed in Turkey based on this phenomenon. A bit weird, but, when in Rome… We ended up popping in to a shop one evening to give it a try. It’s a very strange sensation to have dozens of little fish nibbling at your ankles and toes! I was suffering in the beginning because it tickled and I had to fight the urge not to kick the fish off, but it was good practice to get into a Zen mind and eventually I could relax into the experience. Not something I necessarily need to do again any time soon, but I’m glad we tried it. 🙂

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The fish…

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…the buffet

Gross

Many of you know Roman is a smoker. If you smoke or know someone who does in the west, you’re probably familiar with the printed health warnings or cheesy guilt-tripping pictures all over the cigarette boxes.

In Thailand they take things a step further and include really graphic photos on the boxes. They’re really disgusting. Whether they are effective or not, I can’t say. Certainly they haven’t had any effect on Roman other than getting him to buy a case to put his cigarettes in cause neither of us want to look at photos of autopsies while we’re having a coffee. 😛 Here’s one of the less disturbing ones for your viewing pleasure. My advice if you’re a smoker and planning a trip to Thailand, bring your own cigarettes, buy a case, or, better yet, use it as a good time to try quitting! 😉

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Some other, random pictures

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Sculpture on a bridge close to our apartment. I don’t get it but I like it. 🙂

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The tuk-tuks in Thailand are similar but distinct from the auto-rickshaws in India (which totally have my heart – sorry tuk-tuks). Here is one particularly colorful one. Note the fake, red bullet holes and the “booty call” sticker. 🙂

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Monks and novices leaving a temple

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Incense, lotuses and chrysanthemums for sale in front of a temple

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Snapshots: Arriving in Thailand

Writing about Chiang Mai has got me thinking about how it felt to arrive there after India.

Roman and I had said our goodbyes at the airport the night before in Cochin (after being driven there by the slowest cab driver in all of India!). Cochin is pretty touristy and felt more insulated than many of the places we’d been in India. Even so, landing in Singapore for my early morning transfer felt like arriving at a different world.

It was still dark as we landed, and the view from the plane of hundreds of glittering ship lights on the pitch-black water, followed by seeing the city itself all lit up was incredible. I will admit, stepping into the pristine, quiet, massive airport felt a bit like arriving at a lush oasis after crossing a desert. 😉 I made a bee line to the nearest Starbucks for a soy latte and then spent the rest of my layover enjoying the glittering temple of consumerism just outside my gate, the cleanest bathrooms I’d seen since leaving Switzerland and chatting with a nice guy who’d been living in Zürich but was on his way to Bali to coach the national football team.

The flight north to Chiang Mai was quick and easy. I loved watching the landscape change beneath the plane, watching scruffy green hills emerge from the plains as we got closer to our destination.

The airport in Chiang Mai seemed relatively simple (especially after Singapore!) but the team of people from the cell phone company handing out free sim cards to all the newly arrived tourists was a first indication that I wasn’t in India any more, Toto. 🙂

The hotel had arranged pick up and I was escorted into a spotless, air-conditioned little Honda that still had the smell of new car. The driver barely said a word and it almost all felt too quiet to be true (perhaps especially after the chatty driver in Cochin who had stopped when the urge struck him to pick up chewing tobacco).

Other things that left an impression that day:

how broad and clean the roads were (after India at least 😉 )

the number of 7-11s we passed on the way to the hotel – they seem to be everywhere in Thailand!

the large number of small trucks on the street (Apparently there is a tax in place that makes it more economic to buy a truck than a car.) which was funny to see after India, where for the most part the only trucks are the industrial-sized goods carriers

how good everything smelled. That first day it seemed like everyone I passed by was wearing pleasant perfume, and the resort especially smelled great, especially all the linens. It cost a bomb to have laundry done there, but it was worth every cent for how amazingly good the clothes smelled when they came back. 🙂

Detox and Ayurveda in Chiang Mai

My first stop after India was to indulgent health resort just outside the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai.

I am finding that one of the challenges for me with this trip is the difficulty to feel fit. The way I work, my mental state can be pretty strongly affected by how healthy I am eating and how much exercise I get. India involved a lot of time travelling – long hours sitting on trains, many meals consisting of airplane food or pre-packaged snacks, lots of inclusive hotel breakfasts of white bread toast, and far too much cooling off and refueling with stops at Cafe Coffee Day! 🙂

All this meant that I was feeling pretty flubby by the end of our time in India, so two weeks that offered both detox and yoga sounded just perfect. (I wrote more about finding the resort in an earlier post)

The Spa Resort offers all sorts of different packages with different health focuses. My stay included a four day juice and fruit fast at the beginning of the two weeks, plus daily yoga, Thai massage and time in the sauna. There were people there who were doing more ambitious programs – seven day proper fasts or intense boot camps with full day programs of exercise, but I didn’t want to shock my body after 4 months of basically doing nothing. 😉

The juice fast was in some ways easier than I thought it would be. You’re drinking different things all day long (including amazing coconut water – the best I’ve ever tasted right out of the coconut) and you get a massive platter of fruit at lunch time which was really quite filling, so I never actually felt hungry or anything. But I’ve done similar fasts before and had expectations about feeling more clear and grounded mentally.

In fact, I found I was only feeling more and more restless in my heart and mind as the days passed. The daily yoga wasn’t feeling satisfying; while my body was performing the asanas, the rest of me felt totally disconnected from the practice. A lot of the self-criticism that I’d been participating in during the time in India intensified, so I was spending a lot of energy feeling little and shy and lonely and sorry for myself. When I wasn’t doing that, my brain was busy stressing over visions of the future it was spinning out of thin air and I found myself having all sorts of worries about me and Roman.

After my fast was over, I signed up to have an Ayurvedic consultation, and this session happily ended up being a turning point. I’d always been interested in Ayurveda from the little I’d learned about it in my yoga teacher training. A lot of what it prescribes seems like common sense. Still, I didn’t expect to feel so much better so soon after taking the consultant’s advice.

I won’t go into too much detail explaining, since I’m no expert, but she identified an imbalance and suggested a list of simple things to try to help counteract this imbalance. Based on the Ayurvedic perspective, all the raw fruit I’d been eating was actually only making the imbalance worse. I started eating cooked food right away, going to the steam room instead of the dry sauna, getting oil instead of dry massages.

Walking out of my first oil massage the next day, I felt like I was really seeing where I was for the first time. I’d been able to mentally assess before that the resort was lovely, but only that day did I begin to really realize it and see its beauty. Being more grounded in the present, instead of thrashing about in a tempest up in my head, it was like a blind fold had been lifted and suddenly I could see the world around me. The dance of the butterflies on the path before me. The feel of the breeze on my skin. The glow of the flowers outside the restaurant in the afternoon sunshine.

Feeling this difference, I realize that I spent a lot more time in my head than being present while in India. There were definite moments of wonder and connection in India, but I can see that I experienced a lot of it through my head and intellect only, while not connecting emotionally. I’m trying to figure out why this might be, and I can see how I still struggle now sometimes to keep grounded and present at times. I have some theories; maybe I’ll write more about them some other time.

Getting back to the Spa Resort for now though – thanks to that grace, the rest of my time there was just blissful. I felt much more connected to what I really wanted to do (before this, I’d been making decisions based on thoughts like “well, this seems sensible” or “the guidebook says xxx”, rather than what I felt like doing) and started feeling the bliss of yoga again and having fun with some of the lovely people I met at the resort.

It was really a lovely place to be – amazing location, grounds and food – and I’m so grateful for the time I had there.

I didn’t take so many pictures while I was at the resort, but here is the view from my upstairs balcony, just to give an idea of how beautiful this place was!

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India recap: Christmas

After the overnight in Bengalaru, we flew to Cochin where we’d arranged a two-day package that included an overnight on a houseboat – our Christmas present to ourselves, (from us and my sister – thank you Smoo!). The package was a bit pricey, but really well coordinated and it all felt incredibly indulgent. 😀

We were picked up at the airport and driven through small, tropical towns towards our first Kerala destination, Kumarakom. It was funny to see things like houses, gas stations and shops in the midst of what – to my inexperienced eye – looked rather like a jungle. It seems like the plant life in that part of Kerala definitely has the upper hand. As buildings and concrete tends to encroach upon any greenery in large cities, so the flora seemed to be crowding out all the man-made structures in the towns leading up to the Kerala backwaters.

After driving for well over an hour into the increasingly lush landscape, our car took a turn onto a narrow dirt path flanked by rice paddies on the right and the start of the backwaters on the left. We bumped along until we came to a simple but lovely hotel at the edge of the peninsula where we spent the night. Highlights that stand out in my mind:

-Enjoying the soft breeze on the roof of a boat during a “sunset cruise”. As the sun disappeared beneath the horizon, we watched as one by one, hundreds of massive fruit bats winged slowly out of the palm forest and flew out above the backwaters.

-Dinner of Karimeen (pearl fish – a typical Kerala dish) in the outdoor restaurant. Fun was when the power cut out and we were left in the pitch black, listening to all the sounds of the critters in and around the backwaters. 🙂

-Our room came with a very effective air conditioner. The exhaust for the AC went directly into the bathroom. After 5 minutes of the AC being on, the bathroom was hotter than an oven! Built in sauna! 😉

In the morning of Christmas Eve, our houseboat arrived to pick us up. It came with a three-man crew; two guys to man the ship and a cook who were all lovely. The boat was massive and I was excited by our on-board bedroom – one of the cleanest places we’ve stayed in India! 🙂

It was a bit surreal trip being on a houseboat again – I had done an overnight on one towards the end of the group trip and it had been such a highlight of that portion of my travels. It was wonderful to be able to share it with Roman as well but my mind did wander to the wonderful folks I traveled with during my first three weeks in India.

My thoughts were also very much with my family in the States. Christmas is my favorite holiday and I love celebrating it with them at home. But the past few years I’ve been in Switzerland for the holidays. Being on a boat in the tropics and knowing that they were all sharing in my nephew’s first Christmas, I felt further away than ever.

I know I am so blessed to be able to be doing this trip, to have the life that I do – I am so grateful for this. But sometimes I wonder how long it will be till I get to share Christmas with them again. Part of this big trip is about figuring out where to live next and daydreams of holidays with my family certainly factor into my speculation, but right now the journey is still feeling so new and I don’t have any sort of clarity on when I might next be passing out gifts from the under the tree at my parents’ house…

My pining aside, it was a magical Christmas Eve. The boat docked in a lagoon filled with water hyacinths and Roman and I watched the sun setting over the water and the fireflies emerge in the darkness. The peacefulness and splendor of the pristine nature were just amazing. Later in the evening we had a lovely meal on the boat, and were even visited by a group of local boys who sang us a very lively Christmas carol and passed out sweets. I have to say, the paper-mache Santa masks kind of gave me the creeps – felt a bit more like a visit from Halloween trick-or-treaters. 😉 Definitely a different Christmas! 🙂

Wildlife at the hotel in Kumarakom

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Dragonfly at the water’s edge

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The big blob in the middle of the shot is one of those massive fruit bats!

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The picture quality is not great, but here it is cropped so you can get a better look

Christmas on the houseboat

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Our houseboat pulling in! 🙂

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Look at that clean, lovely bed! 🙂

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Fishermen on the backwaters

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Soda for sale

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Docked for the night

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Sunset on the backwaters

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Trick or treat?

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Water hyacinth detail. These plants were all over on the backwaters and I just loved them. Hundreds of the flowers were open in the morning sunshine on Christmas day. This photo was taken with the digital zoom on Roman’s camera from very far away, so the quality is not the best, but  wanted a close up – I love the pattern on them, like a little flame on the top petal.

India recap: Bengaluru

After Hampi we had a quick stop-over in Karnaka’s capital, Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore). We went here because of the good travel connections – getting in and out of Hampi by train is somewhat limited.  Roman was also curious to see India’s IT capital.

We barely had any time there and a good chunk of it was used drinking smoothies in exchange free WiFi while we tried to figure out visa requirements for Thailand. So I don’t want to speak ill of Bangalore based on insufficient exposure, but it wasn’t particularly exciting to me. From what we did see, it had none of Mumbai’s vibrancy or Delhi’s sense of history and culture. According to Lonely Planet “the city has experienced a mad surge of urban development of late” (thanks to its IT industry), which may be a contributing factor to why it I found it to feel so flat. Certainly the hotel we stayed in didn’t help the city’s case. 😉

Highlights/points of interest included:

–       A nice (but not amazing) meal at Ebony’s – located on the top of a sky scraper it’s meant to be exciting for its view but I was more charmed by the paneer than the skyline.

–       Listening to blaring Christmas carols including “Feliz Navidad” while sitting outside in a t-shirt at the smoothie joint

–       We wanted to recharge our Tata Photon (wireless 3G internet connection) but discovered in the morning that all the IT shops don’t open until late. This is because they stay open late – my guess is due to remote tech support to the West?

–       Technically this is pre-Bengaluru, but I really enjoyed the overnight train there from Hospet – a town close to Hampi which serves as a transport hub. It was my last train ride in India. We met a lovely family who were traveling to a suburb of Bangaluru. Anurag is a young guy studying to become a doctor. We chatted with him and his parents (his jovial father boarded the train wearing three hats – one for each of them. His mother was shy about her English and barely spoke but had the most lovely smile.) and they shared some of their home grown fruit with us. We’d chatted with folks on trains before, but Anurag was so open and easy to talk with – really nice and interesting conversation and just another example of the openness and hospitality we experienced with people in India.